SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature


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Six rules for writing about AI set out at Worldcon 75

Quote from the film, Ex Machina.

AI, Artificial Intelligence, is the one element that many SF writers like to work into their stories, particularly robot-human interactions. The bad news is that this particular element is probably the hardest to get right and the furthest away from becoming reality. On the third day of Worldcon 75, which ended last week, authors Anthony Eichenlaub and S.B Divya, and research scientist and software engineer Greg Hullender, formerly of Amazon and Microsoft, poured icy cold water on the notion that human-like robots will populate the world any time soon. Continue reading


How Chinese SF writers deal with “the invisible” – Worldcon 75

One of Prof. Song’s slides. He ignores the conventions for Powerpoint presentations but his ideas are very interesting.

Day 2 of Worldcon 75 delivered an Academic Track session that was on par, at least in terms of content, if not presentation, with the latest ideas and findings in Chinese Science Fiction (SF), one of the sub-genres of SF that I find particularly interesting and puzzling. Mingwei Song (Wellesley College, USA) presented on Poetics and the Politics of “the Invisible” –  Science, Science Fiction, and Realism in China, 1890s-1920s. The one idea that he conveyed clearly is that in China, SF is a “marginalized, hidden genre”, which, despitue its lowly status, has become “a vehicle for conveying messages that are beyond popular interpretations”, particularly about subjects that are contrary to, or not part of, the Chinese government’s prevalent “Chinese Dream” of prosperity, stability and happiness. Continue reading


Poor presentations detract from the messages at Worldcon 75

Messukeskus Conference Centre, Helsinki, venue of Worldcon 75.

The first Academic Track session on the first day of Worldcon 75 (the 75th World Science Fiction Conference), on the 9th of August in Helsinki, Finland,  promised to showcase the finest minds and the most sophisticated analyses that academics working in Science Fiction (either the science part, or the fiction part, or both) have to offer. The subject was “Uses of Fantasy: The Book, The Film, and Audience Responses – Results of the Finnish Sub-Project of the World Hobbit Project”. The presentations by three academics were, unfortunately, examples of “Do as I say, not as I do”. Continue reading


Mental-floss on a grand scale – Death’s End by Cixin Liu

It has been said that many authors seems to be unable to grasp or describe how big outer space is. So it takes a bold and visionary Science Fiction (SF) writer – and I mean “visionary” in the sense of being able to come up with a vision of a setting in outer space – to describe space in both scientifically acceptable and literarily pleasing ways. Some writers gloss over the whole thing – it’s just “big”, “enormous”, or “there”. Others try to think beyond the usual ways of describing it. So, how big is it? And does LIU Cixin get it right in his sweeping epic of a space opera novel, Death’s End? Continue reading


The magic didn’t work for me – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally published: January 26, 2016,
publisher: Tor Books, 320 pp. hardcover

If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2.  Continue reading


What makes an AI human? – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette UK company, 2016, 378 pp. e-book. Kindle edition – Oct. 20, 2016. Hardcover edition: Hardcover – Jan 31, 2017

This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms.  Continue reading